20 October 2010

Never Say Nice Again- MR. NICE Review

One of the many ways in which The Social Network affected me was in re-evaluating my stance on biopics. Mark Zuckerburg has publicly (and understandably) protested about the way he's represented in the film, but it's clear that the filmmakers got the most drama out of adapting from a source that was at least a little spurious. The alternative is making a film like The Runaways or some other musician biopic that subsists on cliches rather than telling a satisfying story.

Somewhere in between lies Mr. Nice, a film based on the life of affable drug smuggler Howard Marks, whose extraordinary life story is translated here from Marks' own shaggy-dog autobiography. Arriving in Oxford from a tiny Welsh village where there are more coal mines than schools, Howard discovers the joys of hashish. When he realises that his job prospects aren't great even with the boon of a degree, he's drawn into smuggling drugs, and so begins a prolific criminal career that makes him into a celebrity.

The measure of Mr. Nice, for me, is this. "An Audience With Howard Marks" came to Middlesbrough Town Hall, just a 20 minute walk from where I live, on Monday evening. The man now makes his living talking about his life for audiences, unemployable as he is with his past mischief on public record. I missed the event, but saw this film on Tuesday evening. Having watched the film, I feel I got a good enough sense of who he is, or who he thinks he is, that I'm not going to be scouring the listings in the hope of a repeat performance.

It's not that I didn't like Rhys Ifans' great performance, or that I didn't like his character, or even that I disliked the film. It's a fine film, but I wonder if this film will undercut his audiences' interest in seeing the man himself live. Maybe out of curiosity, to see what he's really like, and if he really has looked like Rhys Ifans since the age of about 16, but otherwise, I think watching the film and then seeing the guy talk about his life would be like hearing the joke secondhand. It would be better from the horse's mouth, and even then, maybe you just had to be there.

Ifans is fantastic, as always, though he made me realise I can't remember hearing him using his native Welsh accent that much, except in this film and in the trailer for the new Harry Potter film. Speaking of Harry Potter, I was captivated by part-time Professor Lupin, David Thewlis, as Jim McCann. It's in his "funny terrorist" role that part of my scepticism about the film arose, but he's a dangerous and intriguing presence throughout. Also, keep a sharp eye out for Christian McKay, who I remembered for his excellent Orson Welles last year but had trouble placing because of some stunning sideburns, and Crispin Glover, who's also obscured by hair.

In being underwhelmed by Mr. Nice, I'm worried I'm imposing a double standard, as far as The Social Network is concerned. The crucial difference is that Aaron Sorkin had something to say with that film, whereas Rose just presents Howard Marks' autobiography fait accompli, without really probing or exploring his personality or foibles. When he's seen with what Maxi-Me refers to as a Chubby Hmm moment (TV Tropes page pending) and adopts the alias Donald Nice, or Mr. Nice, we're not really sure what he's done to earn it.

Sure, it's insulated in the fact that Marks peddled a socially acceptable drug, and that the government legislation relating to hashish was disproportionately harsh, but is he really that nice? He even says, through the medium of Ifans, that he big-headedly assumed everybody who knew him liked him. I think it's likely that Rose made the same overestimation of the viewer, so although he does well in directing and recreating period settings, the clumsy sub-Forrest Gump usage of stock footage notwithstanding, the whole package is underwhelming.

At one point in the film, our hero compares his situation to a James Bond movie. If Mr. Nice were a James Bond movie, it would be one of those you watch on ITV on a Sunday afternoon while channel-hopping and then forget about until the next time you accidentally catch it. It's a Never Say Never Again- not a film you'd seek out unless you were a completist. It's a shame, because it's still a great showcase for the talents of Rhys Ifans. Nice performances, nice direction and nice writing, but I'd hoped for a bit better than "nice".

Mr. Nice is now showing in selected cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Mr. Nice, why not share your comments below? If you really love Never Say Never Again, my condolences- you should probably watch some of those better Bond movies, sharpish.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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